In the final week of July a brief item in a utility newsletter sent us searching the archives of Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News. Burrowing through a decade’s worth of back issues, we found what we were looking for in the May 2006 edition.
The object of the search was a cover story titled “Private Parking,” describing the leadership role taken by Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives attempting to do what the federal government couldn’t bring itself to do—even to the extent of failure to carry out its own law—by providing an environmentally secure storage site for spent fuel from the nation’s nuclear power plants.
Conflicting agendas within the government killed off the co-op led effort three years ago, but the recent news- letter article reported the government was now making progress after reversing course, seeking private vendors to do the very thing it had thwarted cooperatives and other energy providers from accomplishing: establishing safe, temporary storage of accumulated nuclear waste at purpose-built sites away from the dozens of power plants where it’s currently held. The news came six years after congressional politics scuttled the government’s own, nearly completed waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and almost 19 years past the deadline specified in federal law for such a facility to be open for business.
The Best-Laid Plans
Today, it’s easy to say the fiasco of U.S. nuclear waste-handling was predictable but it mustn’t have been quite so obvious in 1982. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act, adopted by a divided congress and signed into law by Republican President Ronald Reagan, directed the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop a permanent repository and begin accepting spent fuel for storage no later than February 1998.
That deadline was still several years away when it became clear it wouldn’t be met. Large utilities running nuclear plants and accumulating spent fuel at the plant sites could see they might need to retire facilities even before their licenses expired unless they could park spent fuel somewhere outside their limited storage space until the government kept its promise.
Among those taking the lead was La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative. Dairyland ceased nuclear generation in 1987 but still had 42 tons of spent fuel on its hands, cooling slowly in a deep indoor storage pool within its shut-down plant at Genoa on the Mississippi River.
The La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor (LACBWR or LACK-bar), Wisconsin’s first commercial nuclear generation facility, was a comparatively tiny, 50-megawatt demonstration project launched in 1967 by Dairyland and Milwaukee’s Allis Chalmers Corp. for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and commencing operations in 1971. When the AEC ended the project two years later and sold the plant to Dairyland, it came with assurances that even if the cooperative decided to end LACBWR operations, it would realize several million dollars selling the fuel for reprocessing.
That lasted four years. In April 1977, claiming a need to prevent diversion of fuel for weapons use—an application calling for far more highly enriched uranium than any used to fuel a power plant—the Carter administration halted reprocessing, making the fuel at every U.S. nuclear plant a long-term liability for its operators: Once used up for purposes of generating electricity, it would remain highly radioactive and stranded at the plant sites.
In 1987, Dairyland yielded to the impossible econom- ics of continuing to operate so small a generation facility in an extremely demanding security environment and retired the LACBWR plant. Utilities with continuing nuclear operations faced similar but bigger challenges: They were still creating spent fuel as their available storage space dwindled. In 1994, Dairyland and seven nuclear utilities formed a consortium called Private Fuel Storage (PFS) and began examining potential sites for a tempo- rary repository in lieu of the promised federal facility.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the “not-in-my-backyard” sensitivities triggered by radioactive materials, many options appeared. In 2006 John Parkyn, since retired but then CEO of Private Fuel Storage, told Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News more than 30 sites were considered and “In fact, we didn’t even look at any sites that weren’t voluntarily offered.”
Individual counties, Indian tribes, and private land- owners applied. In 1996, the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians approached PFS and offered the use of some of its land in Utah, about 60 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.
Numbering fewer than 200, the Goshutes wanted the economic opportunities associated with hosting a storage facility. PFS agreed to lease about 800 acres of reservation land, federal regulatory review commenced in 1997 and in February 2006, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC, successor to the old AEC) granted a license to build and operate the facility. Not one shovelful of earth has been turned.
The reasons—those that are undisputed—involve the same kind of congressional roadblocks that deep- sixed the federal government’s Yucca Mountain waste repository, also after it passed regulatory muster and won licensure. The opposition was bipartisan: Democrats killed off Yucca Mountain and Republicans did in PFS.
Late in 2005, Senator Orrin Hatch (R–UT) told officials of Xcel Energy, the PFS partner with the largest own- ership share, that he would “pull out every stop in the book to stop the PFS plan.” PFS still exists but is described as “moribund” by people close to the situation. License in hand, it dropped the Utah project in 2013, unable to obtain necessary transportation-related permits from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management.
Yucca Mountain was doomed even earlier, its funding cut off by Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) after some $13 bil- lion had been spent on development and the facility was virtually completed.
Two views of Dairyland Power Cooperative’s independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI) at the southern edge of the Genoa, Wisconsin, power plant site on the banks of the Mississippi River: The close-up shows the five casks containing the spent nuclear fuel removed in the fall of 2012 from the partially dismantled La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor. The longer view shows the ISFSI in relation to Dairyland’s still-active Genoa power plant. Dairyland officials say their cache of spent fuel could qualify for an early spot in the queue for removal from power plant sites if a proposed interim storage facility wins federal regulatory approval.
Irony Wins Big
Recognizing last December that the ongoing loss of nuclear generation through early plant retirements was at odds with the Obama administration’s ambition to do away with carbon dioxide emissions from electric generation—nuclear plants produce none—the DOE issued a request for proposals to develop privately operated, temporary storage sites and start moving spent fuel away from plant sites nationwide.
What the DOE asked for differs from its Yucca Mountain project in one critical aspect. The Yucca Mountain site was designated by the federal govern- ment; the DOE’s interim solution relies on willing host communities. It would do the same thing PFS attempted a decade earlier, successfully until federal officials torpedoed it. Two private developers now seek regulatory approval for interim storage facilities in Texas and New Mexico.
In July, Dallas-based Waste Con- trol Specialists produced information requested by the NRC in its review of a proposal to store 5,000 metric tons of spent fuel from a dozen decommissioned plants. The plan would use an existing facility near Andrews, Texas, just east of the New Mexico state line.
The Waste Control Specialists (WCS) site already holds large quantities of low-level radioactive waste. WCS applied April 28 for licensure to store high-level spent fuel with an eye toward eventually taking in 40,000 tons in eight separate stages.
Earlier this year, New Jersey-based Holtec International obtained the endorsement of local government commit- tees for a proposed spent fuel storage site between Hobbs and Carlsbad, New Mexico, only about 40 miles west of WCS’ proposed Texas site.
The Holtec project would hold up to 75,000 metric tons of spent power plant fuel and other high-level waste currently at scattered locations, the company says.
About 70,000 tons of spent fuel is now in storage at the power plant sites where it was used, according to figures from WCS. That’s an important number. Last December the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) advised a House subcommittee that even if the funding tap were reopened to permit Yucca Mountain’s completion, further legislation would be needed before it could accept all the spent fuel stored at power plants.
Kim Cawley, head of the CBO’s Natural and Physical Resources Cost Estimates Unit, told the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy the accumulated spent fuel totals 11,000 tons more than Yucca was authorized to hold by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
Lucy and the Football?
Witnesses to this saga over the past two decades are sure to ask whether the DOE’s request for proposals is yet another “Lucy-and-the-football” moment, with officials or agencies poised to yank back at the last instant what finally looks like a chance at success.
Brian Rude, Dairyland Power Cooperative’s vice president for external and member relations, listed several reasons why not, while conceding “It’s not going to be easy.”
Rude says the LACBWR is “a great candidate” to have its spent fuel moved promptly if an interim facility wins approval. “Almost all the discussions about spent fuel handling including President Obama’s blue ribbon commission on the future of nuclear energy have said the shut-down reactors ought to go first, absolutely,” he noted.
Foremost among Rude’s reasons for optimism is that Harry Reid is retiring. Rude characterizes him as “a one- man wrecking crew on spent fuel policy. He has been incredibly effective at derailing the whole federal government response to spent fuel management; he single- handedly shut down Yucca, it’s padlocked.”
Reid’s tenure as senate majority leader and, more recently, minority leader, has many senate Democrats “chafing” over the inability to act on the issue, Rude said. “Now you’re going to see people like [Maria] Cantwell from Washington and perhaps some of the New England Democrats who have spent fuel problems right in their backyard,” he said, adding that in 2013 a bipartisan “gang of four” including Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Diane Feinstein (D-CA), and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) emerged in support of moving spent fuel away from plant sites.
Rude labels one reason for urgency “a personal reaction and not a Dairyland one, necessarily.”
“Personally I feel that absolutely if carbon is an issue and if, going into this, 20 percent of our energy was created by nuclear power which is carbon-free, and we’re seeing those plants just drop right and left, it’s a tragedy to me that we’re losing these plants when we’re concerned about carbon.”
In July, the Nuclear Energy Institute noted the shut- downs, completed or impending, of 14 U.S. power reactors in recent years. Most if not all are closing well short of their scheduled license expirations and the Midwest, with steep carbon dioxide emission cuts mandated under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, has already lost Wisconsin’s Kewaunee plant, looks destined to lose two Exelon plants in Illinois, and could see the loss of Minnesota’s Prairie Island plant more than a decade ahead of schedule under a scenario presented in January to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission by Xcel Energy.
Loss of those four plants would eliminate more than 11,000 megawatts of emissions-free generation requiring replacement by something that can deliver power 24 hours a day. Statistics from the State Energy Office indicate their combined output exceeds 54 percent of all Wisconsin-based generation capacity as of 2013.
The Meter’s Running
The government’s ongoing failure has cost Americans dearly as utility ratepayers and taxpayers. The cost of a permanent repository was to be covered by a one-tenth cent per kilowatt-hour fee the DOE charged utilities on sales of nuclear energy. Those collections were halted by a federal court in May 2014, a little more than 16 years after the still-unavailable facility was legally bound to begin accepting waste.
As of 2015 the DOE’s waste fund had a balance of more than $34 billion and utilities were suing for breach of contract. More than $5 billion was paid out from a Treasury Department judgment fund by the end of last year, with many cases still pending. Dairyland has recovered substantial sums and envisions continuing litigation for more than another year. Last December, the CBO’s Kim Cawley told House members, “As long as DOE remains behind schedule, taxpayers will continue to incur liabilities.”
Even if the DOE begins accepting waste within a decade, its backlog will exceed 20 years and “During that time, liabilities will continue to accrue,” Cawley said.
If there’s a brighter side, it’s that Wisconsin’s member-governed electric cooperatives saw a need and tried to do something about it, a characteristic tracing a straight line back to their founding in the 1930s and ’40s. If the government is serious this time, this state’s co-ops will have had a hand in a solution that’s caught on, however belatedly.